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Eight (or more) is enough for television success

  • Story Highlights
  • Reality shows about large families bring big ratings for cable networks
  • TLC is one that has found success featuring super-sized families
  • Buzz surrounds possible show featuring octuplet mom and her children
  • Expert: Such large families offer "freak show" factor
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By Lisa Respers France
CNN
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(CNN) -- While there may be a fascination with Nadya Suleman and her brood, she is hardly the first.

"Jon & Kate Plus 8" is one of the more popular shows featuring a large family with multiples.

"Jon & Kate Plus 8" is one of the more popular shows featuring a large family with multiples.

The mother of 14, dubbed "Octomom" after the birth of her octuplets in January, is the target of much speculation these days as to whether she and her multitude will become the subjects of a reality show.

But programming centered on large families and those containing multiples has long been popular.

With so many struggling to keep up with the homework and extracurricular activities -- as well as the financial responsibilities -- of one or two children, American viewers seem fascinated with watching parents juggle life with so many kids.

"People tell me all the time, 'But for the grace of God it could be me,' " said Bill Hayes, founder of Figure 8 Films, the production company behind the popular shows "Jon & Kate Plus Eight" and "18 and Counting," the latter of which features the Duggar family. "People relate that it's a challenge to have any children, much less so many."

"Jon & Kate Plus Eight" has been a ratings juggernaut and follows the lives of Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children, including fraternal twin girls and a mixed-sex set of fraternal sextuplets (three girls and three boys). Video Watch Kate Gosselin discuss the challenges of parenting »

Hayes' company brought the family's story to television, as well as that of Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, who are the parents of 18 children (all conceived without the use of fertility drugs). The Duggars recently announced they're soon to be first-time grandparents.

Viewers enjoy watching wholesome, family programming, especially when the subjects are as relatable as the Gosselins, Hayes said. The couple is often shown dealing with the stress that comes with having eight children under the age of 9. "Family is very important for many people," he said. "Most of us struggle with our family lives. It's not easy typically in most families. We're fortunate that Jon and Kate are very emotionally honest and they come clean."

Fame comes with a cost, however, and the couple has become tabloid fodder with stories of interfamily squabbles and marital discord.

Cable networks like TLC, Discovery Health (which are both a part of Discovery Communications) and WE: Women's Entertainment have found success with programming about super-sized families.

Imitation is the sincerest form of television, comedian Fred Allen once said, and TLC in particular has made the most of its large families.

In addition to the Gosselins and the Duggars, the network recently debuted "Table for 12," which chronicles the daily experiences of Eric and Betty Hayes and their three sets of multiples. All told, the Hayeses have 10 children, including a special-needs child.

Eileen O'Neill, president and general manger for TLC, said viewers tune in to see how it all works.

"There's that innate kind of curiosity about a family on a scale of the Duggars or 'Jon & Kate,' whether it's multiples or sheer number," O'Neill said. (She should know: She's a twin herself.) "Those logistics are fascinating as well as entertaining and ultimately inspiring. So many of us are part of families or run a family and I think seeing it on a super-sized level is inherently appealing."

As more women turn to fertility medication to help them conceive, the odds of multiple births increase.

Maureen Doolan Boyle is executive director of MOST (Mothers of SuperTwins) a Long Island, New York-based organization that has worked with more than 20,000 families since its founding in 1987.

Attitudes about multiple births vary around the world, Doolan Boyle said. In some cultures a large brood is welcomed; in others, it's viewed as a "freak show" or a curse.

Canada's Dionne quintuplets, a group of five girls born to an Ontario farming family in 1934, became such a sideshow. When the girls were 5 months old, the provincial government declared the parents unfit and put the sisters under the care of a doctor and other guardians.

The Dionnes were put on display in a nursery across the road from their family's farmhouse, becoming a huge tourist attraction. They even appeared in a handful of films before their parents regained custody in 1943.

That "freak show factor" is one of the reasons there has been so much buzz surrounding Suleman and her family of 14 children, said Michael Levine of LCO, a Los Angeles-based public relations firm. Video Watch whether Suleman is close to signing a deal »

As reality shows push boundaries to gain viewers, Levine said he understands the interest in a series on the octuplet mom and her family, but adds that he has doubts a deal can be struck because of the liability issues surrounding putting the children on television.

"What was novel three years ago is no longer novel, and I predict craziness to be the order of the day when it comes to reality television," he said. Still, he sees the attraction: "Big families provide a very wonderful context for a lot of conflict and complexity that most people can relate to," he said.

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TLC's O'Neill said there are no plans at this time to have a Suleman show on her network.

"We are watching that story develop at a distance and hoping for the best for that family," O'Neill said.

All About Twins and MultiplesThe Learning ChannelDiscovery Communications Inc.Nadya SulemanReality Shows

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